The cause of the people, without the people

After the Fouquires-les-Lens disaster in 1970, a mobilization of activists and artists put the Houillres on trial, but without the participation of the miners. As this world enters into decline, new forms of struggle come too late.

The Mine on trial traces the disaster that occurred on February 4, 1970, which cost the lives of 16 workers in a pit in Fouquires-les-Lens. What followed was a major mobilization of miners, trade unionists, proletarian left activists and many artists. The book is as much a collection of difficult-to-access archives, texts and illustrations, as it is a history book retracing the irruption into the ending world of mining, long closed in on itself, of unexpected actors from the School of Mines and the Maostist far left.

The arrival of external actors

Once the circumstances of the disaster are presented, the work is organized around three axes which all testify to the exceptional turn that the events in Fouquires took in 1970.

The first concerns the mobilization of a few student engineers, of which the formidable testimony of Bernard Leroy, interviewed half a century after the events in 2022, constitutes the centerpiece. Then comes the report of the debates which took place at the People's Tribunal organized by the Secours rouge against the Coal Mines. The last section is devoted to the contribution of some artists in defense of black faces and their families. These different stages seem to take place without the participation of the main stakeholders. If the mine is in court, the miners are not there!

Up to and including the funerals of the victims, the course of events in Fouquires is similar to what usually happens when, in a mining area, a murderous catastrophe occurs: search for victims, recovery of the wounded and bodies, religious ceremony, official speeches But this time , the miners and their union organizations and Communist Party seem to have lost control of the situation to the benefit of actors outside the world of mining which, at this time, was beginning to live its last decades.

At the same time, movements inspired by Maosm attracted young people training in major schools. at the Ecole des Mines, some of them wish to play a role in the class struggle.

Sartre's indictment

The lawsuit that student mining engineers, including Bernard Leroy, brought against the Houillres through a democratic tribunal redwith Jean-Paul Sartre in the role of general counsel, aims to denounce industrial policy performance at all costs and the human risks it poses to workers.

If, given the history of coal mining in France, the disaster at Fouquires-les-Lens in 1970 does not weigh heavily compared to the 1,099 deaths at Courrires in March 1906 and the numerous other accidents, this trials is an opportunity to address other, darker aspects of the lives of minors. Silicosis, in particular, which has affected a large number of workers for a very long time, but which was only recognized as an occupational disease in 1963, as well as the terribly unfair fate reserved for immigrant workers, particularly Moroccans.

Recruited on short, renewable contracts, these men do not benefit from any of the advantages of status of minor of 1946. They are essentially there to ensure, until the definitive closure of the wells, a declining production. Sartre, in his indictment, poses the question specific to the entire history of work in the depths of the earth and, at the same time, the entire history of industrial work as such: are accidents only of the order of fatality?

The role of artists

During this popular trial, the intervention of the artist Grard Fromager (1939-2021) testifies to the commitment of a certain number of painters and sculptors to the action launched by the Maost activists of Secours rouge. Thus they reflect on the form that the collectivization of their works could take. They created an album of images with the title Diary of a Miner's Widowreproduces the end of the work.

Unfortunately, in March 1972, the exhibition of their paintings for example Life and death of a miner , which was to circulate in several towns in the north of France, was banned by the communist mayor of Houdain. This decision underlines, if necessary, the hostility of traditional organizations present in the mining areas to new forms of struggle.

These artists place themselves in the line of representations naturalists industrial work and the struggles that developed at the end of the XIXe century. Men like Jules Adler (1865-1952), painter of the people to which a beautiful exhibition was dedicated in 2019 at the Muse d’art et d’histoire du judasme Paris, are among them. His painting The Creusot Strike (1899) proves his sensitivity to social struggles.

In the 1950s, Andr Fougeron (1913-1998) published, thanks to the support of the Regional Federation of Miners of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, PCFa profusely illustrated work entitled In the land of mines (1950), in which he presents the daily reality of people of the night. at the same time, Boris Taslitzky (1911-2005), a committed artist, defended a social content realism. He also strives to represent industrial work and union struggles. A beautiful exhibition, Art in touch with its timewas dedicated to him at the Roubaix Swimming Pool from March June 2022.

Paradoxically, everything that took place in the early 1970s following the Fouquires tragedy took place outside of the minors. Among the five activists of the New Popular Resistance accused of having thrown Molotov cocktails against the large offices des Houillres, not a single one belongs to the mine. At the trial, only a former miner from Sallaumines silicos 25% came to cry out his revolt against a system which was slowly killing his work colleagues.

New forms of struggle come too late. They are rejected by the traditional organizations established in the basins since the 1880s and are ignored by the mass of miners, who no longer constitute a workforce at the heart of the French economy. From then on, the Fouquires-les-Lens trial is the cause of the people, but without the people.